Why Learn Rarer Languages?

A lot of people with whom I have interacted online wonder why I devote time to rarer languages rather than the big languages of the UN.

It’s interesting to ponder because now matter how I think about it, learning rarer languages is a move that isn’t only justified but a possible moral imperative.

Allow me to explain:
(1) Rarer languages are usually spoken in marginalized areas. This enables you to see narratives that are more readily hidden when you only know powerful languages, in which corporate interest tends to dominate.

When I use languages like Spanish or even Swedish online, it’s clear that a lot of what I read is stuck to a capitalistic system, one that secretly (and sometimes not so secretly) revels in destruction of the planet and the enrichment of a handful of people on it.
Even in places where social democracy is present and higher degrees of equality, there is an underlying complicity in a system in which entire countries and cultures are being destabilized and destroyed.

These countries and cultures speak languages that people barely learn, and by learning these languages you bring their stories of injustice to light.

“The oppressed are always on the same side” (so I remember from a play called “The Irish Hebrew Lesson”, that featured Irish AND Yiddish [both endangered languages]).

By learning to identify with places that may be weaker economically because of imperialist meddling, you’ll be a better human and be more conscious about the destructive patterns that the system so desperate tries to hide or to get people to not think about.

(2) Rarer languages will get you red carpet treatment more easily.

Its interesting that even for a language like Danish in which the Wikitravel page explicitly discourages people from using the local language (saying you’ll “get no points” for learning it), I HAVE gotten red carpet treatment (granted, it’s because I’m fluent rather than dabbling a few words, so there’s that to offer).

Truth is, the rarer the language you learn, and the fewer people from your demographic learning it (e.g. white Jewish guys like me usually don’t learn Burmese), the more “favors” you’ll get. Free drinks. Contact information. Invitations to parties. VALIDATION.

It’s a pity that this remains a well-established secret because most people are convinced by “the system” that learning rarer languages isn’t worth it. Again, this is another diversion tactic designed to get people to ignore the areas of the world being harmed the most by contemporary capitalism.

(And it is interesting because Arabic dialects are somehow deems “useless” despite the fact that, y’know, it’s what people actually SPEAK. Modern Standard Arabic is the language of officialdom and it has its place, but the informal varieties most people never, EVER try to learn. Well I’ll be going forward with Sudanese Arabic later this year. Very well, that means more honor for me!)

(3) When you speak a rarer language, the ability to stand out among its learners is higher.

A lot of people have reached very high levels of languages like Spanish. There’s no denying that and it is an accomplishment. But because of that, you will have to be AMONG THE BEST of L2 Spanish speakers to stand out.

Meanwhile, with Finnish and Hungarian I was already standing out even when I WASN’T FLUENT. And when I, visibly non-Asian that I am, used Burmese in public in restaurants in Mandalay and Yangon, tourists STARED at me in amazement.

A word of caution: hanging on your laurels too much and / or taking the praise too seriously (even when it isn’t deserved) means that you MAY lose the motivation to improve!

 

(4) You may get untouched cultural masterpieces and influences that will stand out and make you stand out in turn.

A lot of people may be influenced by the artwork, music or culture of Western Europe or the United States, but I looked elsewhere in the world for deep inspiration and I found it in the museums of Nuuk and in the Oceania wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

I found it on Pan-Oceanic music YouTube channels and in the music collections of the North Atlantic. In Melanesia, Greenland, Iceland, Southeast Asia, Polynesia and in the songs of my ancestors. And WAY too many other places.

The art you consume becomes a part of who you are.

Venture into art that a lot of your circle doesn’t know about, and your intrigue will EXPLODE.

(5) Those Who Think Different Have Every Imaginable Advantage

If you’re in a place like the United States, you live in a world in which conformity is the path of least resistance and a lot of people believe EVERYTHING they hear on mass media.

By doing something different, you’re emboldened to become a hero, to become a peacemaker, and to go in while myriads of people are thinking “why bother?” or “who cares?”

The conformity and the dumbing down, as things stand, is on route to continue…

…unless, maybe, YOU will be the hero to stem it back. And only those who think differently will have the courage to stand up to the system that has hurt so many. Could it be YOU?

Dysgu Cymraeg

Welsh dragon versus yours truly.

NOTE: PLEASE don’t interpret this as discouragement from wanting to learn popular languages at all, if that’s what you want! I wrote this article because a lot of people wondered “why” I focused on languages like Greenlandic, Lao, Fijian and Gilbertese for months at a time. This is why. And I hope that it will inspire you to chase your language dreams, whether they be with global languages or ones that are significantly smaller.
Onward!

Tahitian: My First Polynesian Language, My First Impressions

Every time I glimpse a language from the post-colonial world, I gain extraordinary insights into the damage and cruelty afflicted by the process as well as the fact that some cultures find themselves to various degrees of confusion.

Some are significantly healthy in terms of their cultural and linguistic identity, despite a lingering sense of having been hurt in the not-too-distant past (Greenland is one such example).

Others are similarly safe (more or less) but often find themselves under the boot of either economic attitudes, cultural disdain or wounds inflicted by the past (Welsh-speakers throughout the UK, both within and without of Wales, have encountered a vocal minority spreading lies that bilingual education harms children and that keeping Welsh alive is merely a waste of money and serves to exclude English speakers. I’m not even going to dignify these claims with a response.)

Others have found their languages on life support, or, in many more cases, have been killed, due to the results of colonialism. The vast majority of languages spoken on the continent in which I am now writing this have been sadly relegated to that graveyard.

Here’s about one more such language that finds itself on the brink, and it comes from a place you’ve definitely heard of.

Last week, knowing that I should start my projects now rather than later (even if I attempt to “pause” them later on down the line), I began learning a language of a place that my father visited before I was born, a place that I’ve been curious about since my childhood.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Welcome to Tahiti.

Résultat de recherche d'images pour "french polynesia flag"

Today is June 29th, which is a day in the history of French Polynesia that is fairly confused in its role. The Day (as well as the celebrations that tend to last for weeks afterwards) is the celebration of French Polynesia’s Autonomy.

Some see it as an Independence Day, others see it as a day worth mourning, given that it is a celebration of autonomy within the French Commonwealth rather than a full independence.

Regardless of how you see the day, I thought today would be a good day to write about my first impressions.

I’ve just been at it at nearly a week, so if you have any advice or comments, let me know. I feel fulfillment knowing that this dream that I’ve deferred for so long is finally becoming a reality, and that maybe other Polynesian Languages (such as Hawaiian, Samoan, Tongan and Maori) may similarly follow suit.

Here are some of my reflections that I’m going to look back on one day. Who knows? Maybe in five years I’ll be a specialist in Polynesian Languages. I’d never say never… especially when I thought in 2008 that I would “never learn Finnish”!

  • I Had to Learn Danish to Access a Lot of Learning Materials in Greenlandic. Similarly, a Lot of Tahitian Learning Materials Are in French.

 

Interestingly enough I could say the same thing about Breton…sort of…given that a lot of scholars of Celtic languages may actually be from the British Isles, I found a significant amount of material accessible for English-speakers as far as the Breton-learning market was concerned. It goes without saying that knowing French would be very advantageous indeed in that department (and I learned Breton before I deemed my French was any good, precisely so I could write about the experience).

 

But for Tahitian, I’m finding that, aside from some phrasebooks and the like, material for learning Tahitian in-depth seems lacking unless I go over to the French side of the Internet. And this leads into my second point…

 

  • A Lot of the French Polynesian is, well in…you guessed it!

 

I don’t know a lot of the details as to various quotas required for French-language usage on TV and radio even in the overseas dependencies, but French language usage dominates on the Internet in Tahiti. As to whether it does in real-life is another thing (and perhaps those of you who have been to Tahiti, as I may indeed one day, could share your experiences!)

Like with Breton, I have had trouble in finding a consistent stream of material for Tahitian immersion. Maybe I need to look a bit further.

That said, I’m finally grateful that I have an “excuse” to improve my French (and yes, learning about Vanuatu / Bislama did help to minor degrees, but there are those that believe that the government is hanging on to its Francophone status so as to keep getting French aid money. I’ll back out of this debate…)

Truth be told: I really like endangered and rare languages (SURPRISE!). I don’t have the same enthusiasm for popular languages unless they somehow serve as bridges to the rarer ones. Voila.

An interesting side note: sometimes I tell my Francophone friends that my primary interest in the Francophone world lies in the South Pacific (which was true before I began learning Tahitian, by the way). A lot of them tend to respond as something like, “Oh, yeah, Vanuatu! I remember him! Haven’t heard much about him these days. How is he?”  Announcing my intentions to learn Tahitian last week at Mundo Lingo got me a similar response.

I find it very heartwarming that the French people I have met actually have a significant soft spot for these endangered languages within their commonwealth and it shows. They tend to admire those who devote time to them. I have never encountered a “why would you do that? How on earth…” or the even worse “why bother keeping it alive?” from any of them.

 

  • The Pronunciation is Very Easy

Like in Finnish, there are longer vowels and the long vowels can actually change the meaning of a word when substituted for a short one. In Tahitian, the line above the letter indicates that it is longer. Pronounce it with more length.

With the exception of the elongated vowels, Tahitian has a, e, i, o and u, pronounced almost exactly the way are pronounced in the Melanesian Creoles that I’ve studied and now speak fluently (Tok Pisin, Bislama and Pijin). For those who don’t have that reference point, these are similar to their pronunciations in Spanish.

There is a (an?) ” ‘ ” that is pronounced as a glottal stop. Now this is like the pause between an English “uh-oh”. Surprisingly, given that a large number of Americans are familiar with some Hawaiian, this may be familiar to you.

On a side note about Hawaiian popular culture, I think it also influenced Japan in much of the same way (and perhaps the same argument could be made for Polynesian culture as a whole!)

 

  • You Never Learn a Language from Absolute Zero, and Tahitian is no Exception.

 

The word for a village in Tahitian is “nu’u”, which I instantly recognized from the name of the capital of Tonga, Nuku’alofa (for those unaware, the Polynesian languages resemble each other much like the Romance Languages do). Quick research reveals that Nuku’alofa is Tongan for “place of love” (nuku is the cognate word. One day I’d really like to learn Tongan, but I think one Poly Language at a time will do for now as well as … dropping or pausing a lot of my previous projects…)

The word for greeting is Aroha. Thanks to American Popular Culture / Pokémon Games, I need not tell you anymore.

The way to say “hello” is “ia ora na”, which I recognized from that one week I spent with Maori back in 2014 – “Kia ora” is their greeting.

And the Tahitian word for the ocean is certainly a word you may recognize:

“Moana”

EDIT: WHAAAAAAT? WHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAT?!!?!?! WHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAT???!!?!

 

Wow, I honestly…wasn’t expecting that…I may have some issues with big corporations in general, but sometimes I have to hand it to Disney concerning the work they do with multilingualism, even if they do mostly focus on the developed world. (And hey…thanks for the Icelandic dubs!

Another thing to keep in mind, on the topic of Disney, is that Moana is actually known as Vaiana in Europe on account of…I’ve heard copyright issues and the other story I’ve heard involves the name of an Italian…well, you can look it up yourself if you’re so curious.

Vaiana is Tahitian as well, “water cave”

 

  • Can’t Wait to Learn More!

 

Seems that I have an exciting journey ahead in regards to seeing the true side of French Polynesia and its best-known island! I can’t say I’ll head in knowing what to expect, but much like the rest of my language journeys, I’ll know I’ll be forever changed!

 

Are Some Languages Harder Than Others?

Ah, yes, one topic guaranteed to get clicks!

IMG_2906

Helsinki, 2013

I should begin by mentioning the previous “schools” that I am aware of concerning the ranking language difficulties. Keep in mind that for this article I have primarily native English speakers in mind, without taking into account other languages that they may know to whatever degree:

 

  • Most well-known is the Foreign Service Institute’s rankings, captured in way too many infographs throughout the web so I won’t post the extensive list here. The short version: Romance Languages and most Germanic Languages are the easiest, Swahili Indonesian and German a bit harder, most languages in the world are hard but not the hardest, which would go to the Chinese Languages, Korean, Arabic and Japanese.

 

(I’ve heard that “Arabic” in this case actually indicates either “MSA” or “extensive knowledge of all dialects”, surprisingly, not clear what a lot of people mean by “Arabic” when they say it, even in the Language Learning World [ESPECIALLY in that sphere, come to think of it!]. That said, I played around with some Arabic dialects for tiny tastes here and there but nothing devoted. No interest in learning MSA at the present moment).

 

The gist of the list is this: easier languages require less time to speak at a good level. I see some validity in this. No doubt between learning a language like Galician (a sibling of Castilian Spanish and Portuguese that didn’t go on and take over the world) and Gujarati (an Indo-Aryan language spoken on India’s westernmost coast), I and almost anyone with a knowledge of English would find it easier to “sprint” with Galician, even as a monolingual native English speaker.

That does NOT mean that sprinting with something like Gujarati is impossible, only that it requires more mental focus or, in some cases, mental gymnastics (prepare for either a lot of out-loud repetition or heavy-duty memory techniques!)

The biggest weakness of the list, in my opinion, is that it isn’t too extensive and that it just covers primary official languages without going further. Curious to see where Irish or Greenlandic or Tok Pisin, or even Haitian Creole, would stack up!

 

  • The Benny Lewis school (which, to be fair, really helped me get over some of my difficulties with languages like Finnish and Hebrew), the idea that all languages are equally difficult and that some languages that are touted as “difficult” actually are simplified in other regards.

Without a doubt, from the vantage point of the English speaker, Lewis’ argument has some validity, as anyone who has ever TRIED a “hard” language with this mindset and succeeded can attest to.

One thing that frustrates me is the idea that often people read a lot about a “hard” language online. These tend to read like fact-lists of grammatical phenomena, but rarely if ever are they actually written about someone who has actually learned it. (And in the rare case that it is, as I may have seen on finland.fi or the like, it actually DOES contain encouragement).

The attitude presented as such is vital. It can help people who are struggling with a language very dissimilar from English (such as what I have with, let’s say, Welsh or Burmese at the present moment).

It also manages to magnify the fact that, yes, there are some portions of “easy” languages like Spanish that are actually insanely difficult when actually looked at. (Spanish verb conjugation is a page, but Burmese verb conjugation is a paragraph, if not actually a few sentences).

 

BUT!

There is something missing from both of these ideas, and its one that I’ve almost never encounter anyone else bring up before, which is why I needed to write this, and that is…

 

A Language’s Political Power Makes It Easy to Engage With.

 

Careful!

Engage with =/= learn!

If I wanted to, I could live my entire life in French somewhere. My computer is available in it, almost all major video games and other software programs on the market are available in it, there’s dubbing, and more political support than a language could hope for. In short, one of the most powerful languages on the planet.

A language like French, German, or Mandarin is the easiest to engage with. If you want to start putting what you’ve learned to practice, you can start within seconds. In some globalized cities, you can even just walk outside and encounter native speakers.

A notch beneath is a national language of (what is usually) a particular country or a handful of countries. Swedish, Indonesian, Hungarian and Vietnamese would fit squarely into this category. Often there is a lot of tech support available in this language, although not a lot of (or ANY) film dubbing (and having film dubbing, outside of those for children’s programming, usually ensures that it is one of the most powerful languages on the planet, Ukrainian would be the exception that proves the rule, in my opinion).

These are easy to engage with online but not AS easy as the ones that will flood you with lifetimes’ worth of material within seconds.

Sometimes included in this category are some regional languages of very powerful states (e.g. a handful of regional languages of India, Indonesia or Spain).

Then comes the genuine minority or regional language, varying a lot in their positions, or certain local languages that, while commonly spoken where they are, often are deemed “less prestigious” than European colonial tongues (Tok Pisin and Tetum from East Timor come to mind immediately). Other examples would include Breton or Faroese.

While the Internet still provides tons of materials for languages like these, especially if they’re from Europe, you’ll notice that it is a lot scarcer. What’s more, some languages, like Quechua or Cornish, have an extraordinary dearth of programming, but hopefully the future will change that.

Then come local languages such as those spoken within even smaller communities than that. I have only met a handful of people EVER that have managed this task, and often by becoming a genuine friend of these communities (these are languages that, I would say, would exist on Wikipedia but their respective wikis would be very, VERY small! Imagine languages of small indigenous communities. Some Melanesian musicians, such as Sharzy from the Solomon Islands or Daniel Bilip from Papua New Guinea, will lapse into such languages)

 

But hold on, Jared! Certainly you don’t mean to say that Bislama (the third category) would be harder to learn that Japanese (first category)

No.

But often your ability to rehearse and get better at a language makes it easier to maintain and easier to get a vocabulary.

So how does this tie into difficulty?

Allow me to explain:

I refer to some of my languages that I have “activated”, which means that I have mastered basic elements of grammar, can conjugate basic and general verb forms in a past, present and future, understand how adjectives work, understand how cases work (if the language has cases) and how articles and sentence structure function.

Once you get a very good grasp on these, then having the language is a bit like a “bicycle skill”, one that you never truly forget even if you haven’t done it in the longest time.

Case in point: I abandoned Russian and Polish for several years but throughout all of this time I could distinguish verbs from adjectives and make them fit grammatical in sentences.

Once you have “activated” a language in this manner, and acquired a core vocabulary of 300 words or so, then it comes the time to improve it.

Improving it is going to be easier for a more politically powerful language.

In short, the list that I provided above is a difficulty on how to improve, whereas the FSI’s list actually determines difficult to activate.

Two different types of learning, both radically different difficulty levels. One can be very easy in one and absolutely impossible in the other.

Have fun activating and improving!

 

Dysgu Cymraeg

RAWR! said the Welsh Dragon! And yes, that’s cartoon me in the picture!

Cornish: Corny People? Cornland?

corny people edited

Up until half a year ago, I had no idea that there was such a thing as a Cornish Language, although after that point I found out that it was one of several languages in Europe (Livonian and Manx Gaelic also come to mind) that had passed to the point of extinction and had been revived).

No doubt my adventures on Crowdin, that have come to a temporary halt as a result of examinations and final papers, had spurred me into curiosity, which tends to attack me and bring me in odd directions in the most unpredictable of ways.

Chances are that you might not know what Cornish is, either, so allow me to explain.

About 1,000 years ago, if you were to look at a map of Britain (the Island that has England, Scotland and Wales on it, minus the minor Islands claimed by these countries), you’ll notice that Wales is not conquered by the English, and there is a comparatively small area below (a little peninsula that stretches out in the southwest of England) that wasn’t under English control either.

That is Cornwall, bordering Devon to the east, and it is one of the six Celtic Nations (the others being the Isle of Man, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, and Brittany [in France, below Cornwall]).

Cornwall (Kernow, as it is referred to in Cornish), had its own language that was in the same Celtic sub-family as Welsh and Breton (the language of Brittany).

One time before almost anyone alive on this planet now was even born, the last native Cornish speaker died, although in more modern times, the language was revived from texts (some have drawn a comparison to Modern Hebrew, which has had a lot of mythology surrounding it already).

And now the question comes, “how many people speak it?”

Perfectly, as in native? A few hundred, although there are many thousands more with a proficient command of a language, hell-bent on being warriors for the Cornish Language, like so many other movements for endangered languages.

I am reminded of this point of a Welsh proverb that says that a nation without a language is like a language without a soul, exactly the sort of mentality required for a linguistic revival of any sort.

So, here it comes. Cornish is my next language project, likely to replace Estonian on my list.

And here is another thing: there is a very specific reason that I am undertaking this Cornish Language project, and I cannot reveal it to you yet. But rest assured that it will be quite exciting indeed, if it materializes!

I’ll write more on the specifics of the Cornish Language in another post.

In the meanwhile, here is how some of my other projects are going:

  • I have mastered Greenlandic grammar. Two gargantuan tasks stand from fluency: (1) a mastery of every single suffix (the only comprehensive lists that exist are in Danish, and are resting in my DropBox account) and (2) a mastery of all essential vocabulary.

 

  • I’m still tied up with Icelandic and Faroese grammar and I’m self-conscious about both. Lord Forbid I actually have to look at tables and recite things out loud! Suffice it to say that I have a “carrot” for learning Icelandic that I will have to reveal at a later date, so I’ll use that as ample motivation…vocabulary with both is close enough to the other Germanic Languages that I’m not too intimidated by it.

 

  • On the other hand, Finnish and Northern Sami…well, if I don’t regularly maintain these then I’m going to forget both of them. There is a very real danger of this happening if I am poorly disciplined.

 

  • Portuguese has gotten a lot worse, Spanish a lot better, and Dutch a LOT I put it all up to living in New York City.

 

  • Swedish is in danger of slipping.

 

  • I really should be writing a paper that involves reading texts in German Gothic script. The good thing? That I’m almost done with it…

 

  • At least I don’t have to worry about my Hebrew exam anymore. Reflections on that course later, now that it is complete.

 

In the meantime, take the time to close the computer and get excited about something!